Alaska sees sharp spike in influenza

Feb 11, 2019

 In southwest Alaska, 75 cases of the flu have been officially diagnosed this season so far. Statewide, 1,606 cases have been diagnosed, and epidemiologists with the state expect that number to rise. 

A graph of statewide lab-confirmed influenza comparing seasons from 2014 to the current season so far (Sept. 15, 2018 to Feb. 2, 2019).
Credit Alaska DHSS

Flu season has arrived in Alaska. Mid-January saw a sharp spike in influenza cases felt around the state, including in Dillingham and reportedly in other communities around the region. 

Tania Erickson-Grant is a teacher at the 12-student school in Platinum, and she said that flu-like symptoms have hit hard.

“We had to shut down for a couple of days, but then we’ve just been limping along," she said. "My maximum was five out of 12 kids, so I ran with that for a few days. I mean, when I opened Monday morning there were two kids.”

Flu season differs from year to year, but this January's sudden rise in illness is unusual. Dr. Joe McLaughlin is the chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology.

“We really had almost no influenza activity – or very, very little – all the way through to the end of December. Then we saw a little bit of a bump in the first two weeks of January, and then a very abrupt spike that is continuing to increase,” he said.

According to McLaughlin, the best way to prevent the virus from spreading is for people to get vaccinated.  

“Part of it depends, too, on how much herd immunity there is in the community," he explained. "So we’re very fortunate to have an influenza vaccine that helps protect individuals and communities from influenza. And if we have a high proportion of the population in the community that’s vaccinated, we don’t tend to see as big of a spike in those communities.”

The reason for the current rise is unclear. The number of cases each year varies due to a variety of factors, including which strains of the virus are prevalent that season. That means the efficacy of the vaccine varies as well.

“Some years it’s highly effective, and some years it’s not as effective," McLaughlin said. "Last year the efficacy of the vaccine was approximated at about 40 percent overall. This year, what we’re hearing from CDC is, it appears as though it’s going to be a higher effectiveness year, so it may be up into the 50 plus percent range”

In southwest Alaska, 75 cases of influenza have been officially diagnosed. 1,606 cases have been diagnosed statewide.

Those who are sick do not necessarily have influenza; the only way to be sure is to get tested. Still, McLaughlin pointed to a few symptoms that can distinguish the flu from other sicknesses. 

“The common cold usually doesn’t give people a fever and if it does, it is usually a very mild, low-grade fever," he said. "With influenza, you’ll often get a higher fever. You know, chills, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose. Body aches are a little bit more characteristic of the flu, generalized fatigue. And then sometimes with flu, people will also get a mild diarrhea. That doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen with flu.”

The Center for Disease Control has several guidelines for preventing the spread of the flu. These include washing your hands, covering your mouth and nose with a sleeve when coughing, and staying home when you feel sick.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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